It’s nearing ten o’clock and DJ Oreo is tucking a pink towel into the neck of his shirt as he settles into a big orange chair at a barbershop on the west side of Chicago. Home for a brief spell from tour with Atlanta-based sensation Lil Yachty, he’s been quickly summoned back to tour, so a visit to the barber is a necessity longed for on the road.
As the stylist goes about pulling at his locks, Oreo similarly pulls on a strand, peering at it in the mirror. “It’s about a foot now,” he says questioningly, looking over his shoulder. The barber, nodding in agreement, “yeah, about a foot now, maybe more.” Tossing back the strand and resettling himself in the chair, adjusting the yellow towel across his shoulders, he thinks back on his last haircut.
“I’ve been growing my hair since November 2009,” Oreo says. “That was the year my mom passed away. Hair was a way for me to get closer to her in a way and ever since then I haven’t cut it. That’s when I really started taking this thing seriously and started doing the DJ thing for real, I haven’t looked back and now my hair is a foot long or so and I’ve gone around the world about five times, thrown my own festival and I’m headed out on tour with my third consecutive XXL Freshman artist.”
In the time since then, DJ Oreo has emerged as one of the pre-eminent support acts and party-starters the city has today. From backing up the likes of Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Yachty and more to stepping out on his own with a series of increasingly-successful (and sold-out) Oreo Fests bringing together buzzing names from in and out of the city’s limits. Today, at 26-years-old, he stands as maybe one of the most influential young creatives operating within the Chicago Renaissance. While today he may have the likes of J. Cole or Jay Z only a phone call away, it didn’t come without paying the dues that the city’s storied dance and party scene had to offer. To be sure, it all started not far from where we are now on a rainy Tuesday.
By the time this piece runs Oreo will be back on the road, touring across the country once again with a young rising star on the verge of mainstream success. To be sure, it’s a role he’s become oddly accustomed to and tailored for from his journey thus far in the world of rap music. Since starting off on the underground dancefloors of his hometown, DJ Oreo has evolved into a sort of rapper’s sensei, able to stay flexible and adaptable while always maintaining a style unto himself. Tonight, he’s just focused on getting errands done and seeing friends and family before heading back out. During the interview we’re interrupted by his barber’s cell phone. A woman on the other line is on FaceTime, he hands Oreo the phone and they say hello and catch up. As men of all ages come and go from the door to his right almost everyone stops to say hi or shake hands. Stand around Oreo for more than a minute and it’s easily recognizable he’s a people person. A naturally affable personality, paired with a careful pulse for a crowd or party made him an entity at underground parties like Wala Cam’s, but it was his experience putting others first that taught him how to grow into a name all his own in the long run.
“I feel like I got the opportunities I got one, because I was around and two: because it was never a thing where I was just looking for opportunity, I wasn’t an opportunist, I was just helping people honestly,” said DJ Oreo, glancing at himself in the floor-to-ceiling-mirror to his left. “Like, they needed a DJ and I wanted to DJ and it’s just like ‘if you gonna be here, don’t waste your time’. I didn’t know what Chance was going to be, I was there the day he put ‘Juice’ on iTunes for a dollar, I didn’t know what that was going to be.”
Since emerging with acts like Calez, Alex Wiley & Kembe X in early and late 2012, Oreo’s big step forward came when he linked up with Chance just ahead of his Acid Rap release. Bringing an energy and showmanship to his performance that allowed pockets for Chano to operate in and adjust to the growing audiences before him, Oreo served as a sort of steadying influence for an artist breaking through to the mainstream with a vengeance.
As we talk, Oreo’s stylist carefully pulls at loose locks, sometimes too much causing the DJ to wince in the middle of sentences. Each time he does so with increased animation. Becoming somewhat of the west side’s ambassador since emerging behind the decks and as a host for shows and parties around town, Oreo has done so by staying true to most of the basic tenants of hip-hop that started everything: music, dance, DJ’ing and all that goes into it. While he admits there’s still room for a DJ Khaled-like few bars on a song somewhere in the future, he’s learned to stay true to his craft by finding many ways to manifest his talent.
“From 2013 to 2016 I was on a lot of different tours,” says Oreo, who got his name when a girl’s nickname for him stuck. “You just have to learn how to adjust, no matter who you with you have to be able to adjust. Personality of the artist, be able to fit them, is your chemistry worth building, are you quick, are you clutch? Are you on point like Kyrie? And that’s what you have to be, but also just outside of that, what type of person are you? Are you a money-hungry individual, are you an asshole, are you able to do your job are you not able to do your job? Are you able to take the pressure, are you complaining, are you able to just go with the flow, because you gotta think about it, you’re spending a lot of time with these people, while it’s a business relationship, it’s very personal.”
Over the last couple decades, the producer has largely grown to replace the role of the DJ within the lexicon of modern hip-hop. In it’s earliest days, the genre leaned heavily on names like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa to guide the sounds and party, giving way to the development of wordplay as a natural collaboration. It was the DJ who got the people excited, started the party and set the stage for the rapper. In that way, Oreo is a both a nod to the past and a product of the present. In Chicago, he built a following through inspired sets that, in the earlier days of Reggie’s shows could turn into long waits for artists to take the stage. Taking advantage, Oreo often turned the varying gaps with what amounted to mini-shows of his own. Having cut his teeth performing at parties and underground shows since his teenage years across the west side and city at-large, he had learned early on how to get people moving, how to stoke the flames of whatever environment he found himself in.
It was after one of those sets that Oreo realized he might be onto something.
“They were just going out and being a DJ, I was going out and was treating my little 5-10 minutes like it was the Oreo show and the funny thing is, the first person to ever say Oreo Fest to me was Stefan Ponce,” said Oreo, reminiscing on those early tours, barnstorming from campus to campus in a tightly-packed van with the likes of Wiley, Kembe Chance and Calez as teenagers. “We were in Bloomington for a show with King Louie and I was just up there with Calez just playing around, making noise and my man Stefan was like ‘oh man I was amazed, that was an Oreo Fest’ and I was like ‘oh man, that sounds like a hot-ass name for a party, I’m gonna use that.'”
Back in the barbershop, Oreo’s head is getting close to completion. As the late-summer rain pounds the windows behind him, he rests for a moment, leaning back in the chair as the barber scurries off to grab something or another, flipping off a TV in the corner. Pulling the towel from the neck of his shirt, wiping his face, Oreo looks down with a look of worry. His cell phone has been plugged into the wall via an impossibly long white cord charging for the length of our conversation. As we talk, notifications pop up and ding, when a phone call buzzed across his screen causing my eyes to dart downwards, he smoothly shake his head just slightly, waving an open palm back and forth like a seasoned Black Jack player, never once breaking eye contact.
In the years since Williams’ mother passed away his life has changed immensely. Whether it be a one degree separation from the mountaintops of hip-hop, creating a career through his passion or glancing forward to what’s next, Oreo has always done so with a narrowed focus. That sort of understood, gradual progress is what has come to pace that journey to this point. That focus manifested itself over the last couple of years in Oreo’s longtime project, ‘Oreo Fest’ which he is currently in the process of planning the fourth edition of. What started as a loose idea in 2012 soon evolved into a full-fledged show, the first one at Reggie’s doubled as a birthday party for Oreo last year and brought together hip-hop artists from across the city, proving Oreo’s ability to cross lines and unite the scene, an important aspect of Chance’s career thus far too.
“I don’t know where I’ll end up at the end of all of this, but I want people to be like ‘man I want to be like DJ Oreo and Chance’ or ‘I want to do what Vic and DJ Oreo did.'” said Oreo. “If people mention me with my friends than I’ve done what I wanted to do. I think it’s funny I can walk into Roc Nation’s office and have Jay Z’s right hand man be like ‘you don’t know who DJ Oreo is?’ This is real natural live shit to me, Virgil Abloh was telling me the other day that I’m thinking too small, that I should be looking to make this much bigger than even I thought.”
From a humble one-off party, a sort of new movement has grown around Oreo’s somewhat-underground parties. Throwing the shows at Reggie’s, Thalia Hall and Portage Theater, they’re decidedly out in the open, but the celebrations have become sort of word of mouth events that only fans really paying attention will catch. The first one sold out in minutes, boasting a lineup that included Chance, Lil Herb, Leather Corduroys, Katie Got Bandz and more. The second one, at the 840-person Thalia Hall in Pilsen, was less a concert and more of a mutual space to meet for the city’s hip-hop enthusiasts, backstage one was hard-pressed to look more than three feet in any direction without seeing an artist with a healthy Soundcloud account. Taking things up a notch further, he wrapped the year by teaming up with none other than Metro Boomin’ for an oversized version that saw most of Chicago’s bubbling artistry take to the stage to perform and tip their cap to the man. In a city that is known for its divisions and quick sense of hate, Oreo has emerged as a sort of maestro of the scene, able to pull together the city’s fragmented edges, in the process fighting back against his hometown’s self-defeating prophecies.
“If you real Chicago, like all-based Chicago, you know what Wild-Eyed Cam’s is, you know what The Pope is. I don’t know what the B-Boys were doing, I don’t even know what Chance was doing in 2009, but he knew about Wild-Eyed Cams, he knew about The Warzone, he knew about DJ Oreo. Not saying I’ve always been the man, but I’ve always been associated with DJ’ing and music in whatever culture I’ve been in,” Oreo said. “It let’s me know that I’m not wasting my time
While his name has become synonymous with some of the most exciting young artists in hip-hop today, Oreo has always understood his role within the world he exists. Despite all the accolades, he knows it’s up to him to dictate his future. In late 2013, Chance began toying with the idea of performing with a band, eventually rolling out The Social Experiment soon after. With a full backline to handle the music, Oreo was somewhat the odd man out. Many may have taken the change in stage setup personally, Chance had just broken through the first layer of stardom and appeared headed for big things. Trusting his relationships, his talent and his friends, Oreo didn’t worry about it and instead focused on new endeavors, opportunities and ended up on tour with Mensa a few months later.
“It was a natural thing, it definitely made me think about where I stood as a DJ, it definitely made me wonder,” said Oreo. “When that happened it wasn’t ever really said or anything. He’s never used another DJ besides me and he still calls me his DJ as well as his brother so there has never been any bad blood, any love lost, I mean shit he came to Oreo Fest. I may not do his shows but for instance I was supposed to be the house DJ for MCD, for Coloring Day, I just wasn’t here. That went without being said, I did his father’s retirement party as well as any private or social function, I’m the first person to get a call. We literally talk everyday, literally everyday either a group chat, text, phone call, whatever.”
Seven years in the game, Oreo’s personality, talent and ability to be flexible, relate to others has taken him around the world several times over. While he feels comfortable with his place within the ever-growing Chicago market, he’s found new land to conquer elsewhere. Noting his theory that you ‘haven’t really made it until you’ve made it elsewhere’ Oreo has been continuing to grow his profile while serving as backing for new buzzing Atlanta star Lil Yachty. To date, Oreo is the only known DJ to go out on the road with three separate XXL ‘Freshmen’ and his approach has adjusted slightly with each. Regardless of which, if any, artist is playing in front of him, at this point the west side DJ understands what he brings to the table, and is having a hell of a time crisscrossing the country and the world while watching his friends from those old midwest college dates do the same.
Last month, Oreo and Yachty arrived in New York City for Jay Z’s massive ‘Made In America’ Festival. Wandering around the backstage areas before the show, Oreo ran into Chance backstage. Yachty was slated to play a smaller stage earlier in the day, Chance and soX were scheduled for a mainstage set just before J. Cole. Regardless of showtimes, the moment was a palpable one for both; they had arrived at one of the country’s biggest stages without one another, at once knowing full well they wouldn’t have done so all alone.
“I took much pride on being at ‘Made In America’ with Yachty and him being on the bigger stage right before Cole played. So when I saw him, it was just one of those things where it was like ‘yes, that’s what I’m talking about, you can tour without me,’” said Oreo, his haircut coming to a close as he carefully peeks around the corners of his head with a hand mirror. “That’s not to talk down on anybody else, it’s just kind of one of those things where I refuse to say I used to work with Chance and have that to leverage things that really didn’t matter, I said that and I made my own festival, I started working with Vic, I started working with Yachty and I look up a year and a half later or two years and I believe I’m the only person in the world who’s worked with three XXL Freshman back-to-back-to-back, since 2013. 2013-14 was Chance, 2014-15 was Vic and shit in 2016 I’m with Yachty.”